Game of Numbers: How the BCS Rules College FootballS

The BCS is the mysterious, controversial system that attempts to determine the best college football team in the country using a mashup of opinion polls and computer rankings. Here's how it really works.

Under the leadership of executive director Bill Hancock, the Bowl Championship Series has reinvented how college football champions are crowned.

Eighteen years ago, Jeff Anderson and Chris Hester were just two roommates at the University of Washington, frustrated with their beloved Huskies always being disrespected in college-football poll rankings.

"Back then, teams were rewarded for playing softer schedules and moving up by attrition," Anderson says. "There was also a lot of East Coast bias."

So the two buddies began crunching numbers in Excel to rank teams on a more objective, numerocentric basis. They started submitting their picks to media around the country, and their data was so reliable that they struck a deal with the Seattle Times in 1994 to syndicate their picks.

Four years later, Anderson and Hester were approached by then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer to become one of an exclusive group of mathematical-ranking providers, for which they'd receive an "honorarium" for their work.

Little did Anderson and Hester suspect that they were cementing their legacy as founding members of the most hated college-football entity in the United States. For more than a decade now, the biggest controversy in NCAA football hasn't been concussions, the influence of shady agents or the exposure of illegal recruiting practices, although every one of those infractions certainly exist.

No, it's the Bowl Championship Series, the much-maligned and mysterious compendium of computer rankings and opinion polls that decide college football's year-end bowl-game pairings, including the national championship game. This year's selections are scheduled to be announced Sunday, and a new round of criticisms is sure to bubble up as it does every year.

Almost since its inception in 1998, the BCS has been the sport's favorite whipping boy, an omnipresent ideal for those claiming a traditional playoff system would heal the game's ills. Critics claim the BCS discriminates against smaller schools that dominate lesser opponents, that a school like Texas Christian will get screwed out of a shot at a national championship because computers say (as of Thursday, at least) that Oregon and Auburn are most deserving of playing each other in Glendale, Arizona, come Jan. 10, 2011.

But the BCS isn't what you think.

There is no towering corporate office. Its notorious computers aren't located in some guarded, all-white room in Langley, Virginia. In fact, according to executive director Bill Hancock, for all its control over big-time college football, it's hard to even call the BCS a governing body. "Some people think we're this evil corporation in charge of college football," he says, "but that's just not the case."

Despite its cultural impact, the BCS is tiny. It staffs just three people: Hancock and two part-time office assistants. And it's headquartered out of the director's suburban Kansas City home. "I don't give out my address," he says with a laugh, "because I don't want someone egging my house."

Regarding his job description, it reads more like that of an event manager than CEO. Things like securing insurance, TV contracts, ticketing, and sponsorships - similar to what he did as director of the NCAA's men's basketball Final Four. Only on a much larger scale now.

In fact, everything about college football today is done on a grand scale. Millions of dollars are pumped into local communities, thanks to roving bands of fanatics, and books like Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer have taught us that college football might as well be religion in some areas. All of which, BCS critics say, is why the system should be scrapped and replaced with a traditional bracketed playoff.

That would be a radical departure for the sport, but then again, the BCS itself was a radical departure when it was ratified in 1998 by the 11 conferences that qualify for annual bowl games. For all the mystery that surrounds how the BCS operates, the organization still answers to every one of those 11 conferences, which help "manage things on the ground," according to Hancock.

At its core, the BCS is a simple system. Two-thirds is human opinion: one-third from the USA Today Top 25 Coaches Poll and one-third from the Harris Interactive College Football Poll.

The remaining one-third is an average of six independent "computer rankings." Hancock likens their proprietary formulas to that of the Coke recipe, but he emphasizes that the BCS "requires them to tell us how they operate," and "independent audit" system evaluations are conducted.

And while mathematical rankings predate the BCS by decades, the new process promised to be the first system combining consensus opinion with numerical analysis into a single ranking. "I think it's perfect," Anderson says. "Two-thirds art, one-third science."

For all the power wielded by BCS computers this time of the year, the machines themselves are hardly extraordinary. In fact, the rankings are processed by individually owned desktop PCs and laptops around the country.

Wes Colley runs his calculations in a database from his home in Alabama. Jeff Sagarin works from his home in southern Indiana, using Fortran, a once popular program used by old-school mathematicians.

Peter Wolfe compiles his rankings baked in C++. Anderson and Hester use a complex spreadsheet and an ordinary HP laptop in Southern California. "When we started, it took Excel half an hour to calculate the rankings," Anderson says. "Now it takes a fraction of second."

‘There's no question in my mind that computer rankings have opened doors for smaller teams. It's only a matter of time until one of these teams wins a championship.'

Once all six providers compile their rankings, they're submitted to Big East associate commissioner John Paquette, who doubles as the BCS' "communications guru." Rankings are also sent to executive director Hancock, the National Football Foundation and four of Paquette's counterparts from other conferences. "All of us compile the information independently," Paquette tells Wired.com. "Then we compare the results to make sure we all agree, after which the National Football Foundation issues a news release."

It may seem cold and calculated as compared to the old system, where head coaches and journalists would each rank the top 25 teams and then an arcane, decades-old system of conference pairings would place teams in certain bowls.

But the BCS computers actually like underdogs more than voters. Why? People remember. People play favorites. People take into account the history and reputation of a school.

"You know Alabama's a good football team before the season starts," Sagarin says. In his view, the BCS is fairer, because it only judges teams on what they've done in the current season: "Computers don't care about name."

Anderson agrees, pointing to the Air Force Academy's 1971 Sugar Bowl–playing squad, the last team not from a large conference to play in a major bowl before the BCS. "There's no question in my mind that computer rankings have opened doors for smaller teams," he says, "Six small-market teams have been invited to BCS bowls in the last six years. It's only a matter of time until one of these teams wins a championship."

People often forget why the BCS was founded: to pair the two top-ranked teams in a year-end bowl game that doubles as a definitive championship. Before the BCS, the top-two nationally ranked AP teams met only eight times in 56 seasons. But since the birth of the BCS, No. 1 has played No. 2 12 years in a row by BCS standings, and nine times according to the AP Poll.

It's not perfect, but it's great if you like high-profile match-ups while keeping the bowl system intact. "For what it was designed to do," Colley tells Wired.com, "the BCS does a really good job."

Not only that, it zigs while playoff systems zag. "How often do the top-two teams meet in college basketball?" Anderson asks. "Watching Butler play in the national championship against Duke was exciting, but it wasn't the best teams going at it."

Those involved with the BCS from day to day are keenly aware of that dilemma. To their collective ears, when critics say they don't like the BCS, what they're really saying is they don't like the reluctance of the NCAA to conduct a formal championship. "A playoff doesn't magically show the two best teams," Anderson says. "That makes college football uniquely exciting. Why should all sports be decided in the same way? Where's the fun in that?"

Still, the BCS has had several notable missteps when matching its eight remaining bowl game spots.

• In 2003, an 11-1 Georgia team (led by head coach Mark Richt, right) easily handed 9-3 Florida State its fourth loss of the season.

• A year later, undefeated Utah moved to 12-0 by crushing the University of Pittsburgh by 28 points, instead of playing undefeated SEC champion Auburn.

• Last season, two undefeated Davids played each other - Boise State and Texas Christian - rather than battling Goliaths in separate underdog games.

"No one wants to see a weak Big East champion go up against an undefeated MWC team," says Gregory Cox, college football director and senior writer at TheFootballExpert.com. "It proves nothing."

"It's always going to be controversial, we know that," Hancock concedes. "I feel their pain."

Despite its imperfections, the BCS has made college football a lot of money, as spectators watch year-end bowl games in record numbers. In fact, under the BCS, college football has become the most popular televised sport in America, second only to the NFL. As Hancock plainly says, "College football is not broken."

Of course, criticism of college football polls was around long before the creation of the BCS. In 1905, an undefeated Yale squad was voted "National Champion" in Outing magazine by Caspar Whitney, a respected journalist and inventor of the NCAA's All-American Team. Midwesterners couldn't have been happy with Whitney's pick, however, as the University of Chicago also went 10-0 in the Big Ten. Alas, it made little difference, as Chicago was still widely recognized as the best team in the country.

Helping to fuel the controversy, the AP started "selecting" its own "national champion" in 1936 by polling the opinions of hundreds of contributing sports writers. To this day, the AP Poll is recognized by the NCAA as the "longest continuous selector" of college football's national championship.

But it ultimately was the AP Poll's ineptitude (and/or the NCAA's unwillingness to officially crown a champion while letting "selectors" do it for them) that led to the creation of the BCS in 1998, the ultimate "next best thing," ratified and agreed to by all 11 Division I conferences.

So in a circular way, the NCAA does sanction the BCS. Except that it doesn't, which only further illustrates how divisive the BCS is, even among the NCAA's own members. Big market teams love it, except when they get leapfrogged by smaller teams. Small teams, like Boise State and TCU, hate it, except when they're in chase of it.

‘It is ludicrous to call the winner of this game the "national champion," because the method of determining who gets into the game doesn't account for more than two teams deserving a seat at the table.'

"BCS rankings are determined by counting strange computer formulas, wacky Harris poll voters and coaches who do not watch most other teams play," Cox says. "It is ludicrous to call the winner of this game the ‘national champion' because the method of determining who gets into the game doesn't account for more than two teams deserving a seat at the table."

"I think they've got it perfect," Anderson says. "This is college football's golden age. Fans love the BCS as much as they love bashing it. Gate attendance and TV ratings are sky high. If it comes to a playoff, I suspect people will eventually look back and realize what a great time this was."

Sagarin would love to see a playoff, if only for the novelty. "Championship formats are like ice cream," he says. "I like all ice cream. In that sense, I wouldn't mind sampling a 16-team playoff, even though I still really like the current flavor."

But as much as the BCS has reduced the controversies of the past, it has also kept more-deserving teams from playing for at least a share of the championship. What's more, results are compiled by the have conferences (read: the ones who get an automatic spot in the BCS), whereas the have-nots have no say in the "accuracy" of weekly rankings. And the mathematics behind it all is still "weighted" by human opinion, even if it's calculated in an objective manner.

And that's really what will prove most frustrating to TCU fans as the BCS announces its pairings Sunday evening. Oregon and Auburn will likely be selected for the National Championship, leaving the much-smaller Texas school asking what more it could have done to earn a spot for the ultimate honor in college football.

Maybe one day, a new, better system will solve these matters without all the uproar. But what would such a system look like, and how and who would operate it, free from claims of bias yet still under the auspices of the all-powerless NCAA?

Those, of course, are the billion-dollar questions.

Blake Snow is a freelance journalist living in Utah. His published work can be found at blakesnow.com.

Image credits: Computer pictures courtesy Jeff Anderson and Wes Colley
Georgia: Dave Martin/AP